Today I would like to curate a flight you’ve probably never imagined. No barista course or sommelier training will teach you about the subject we will study today, but it is one all farmers know. Our barn is the staging area: it’s long and symmetrical, wood-paneled a la New Brunswick winter, weathered, rustic, unshakable as the hill it stands on.
We swing through the little postern, and enter a palatial gallery, tall wooden doors marching down the length like theatre boxes or staterooms. The subjects of our flight are six pens housing livestock, whose manure affords a rich sensory range and a study in the variety of farm life.
According to standard flight protocol, we’ll start with the mildest, so as not to over-power the senses too soon. The geese chorus our arrival so loudly that we’ll simply stand at their door and breathe. It’s a good introduction. You’ll notice hints of green, like a lily pad in a marsh, subtle as dappled sun through leafy trees; like a wicker chair in the shade of an umbrella at a garden table. It’s the wheat beer of manures, sweetish and moist, a bit cloying if you ask me, at least when you’re trying to scrape it from the floor. It’s as under-stated as the chorus of goose voices is over-stated.
Next are the rabbits. Their manure carries with it an edge of pungency, but it takes longer to strike the olfactory nerves than some, like the chocolate egg you discover unexpectedly in the straw of an Easter basket, waiting quietly for you to find it, delightfully real once you do. This is the opposite of goose manure, dry, round, small pellets packed full of horticultural goodness. This is the prize of gardeners, the reason many people even raise rabbits. It’s a renewable resource that never disappoints. It’s like those stackable plastic lawn chairs in bright colours; sturdy, reliable but somehow light, movable and easy to clean. Rake this stuff into a bucket and throw it directly on your garden. The smell is like the animal itself, unobtrusive, fleeting, low to the ground, mysterious. It’s the hint of chocolate, the sharpness of pepper, it won’t let you define it more than that. It’s the cider of manures, not quite classifiable as a beer, with its fruity origin, not a mead either, light and heady and enigmatic.
Next, we come to the goats. Now the goats are a species unto themselves and their scat is like them. It has the flat, diesely smell of public transit. It’s pushy and loud, it’s dry and inhospitable. It’s tough and uncompromising like the creatures that produce it. But it’s easy to clean, just as they are easy to take care of. Give them hay, clean water, your rose bushes, and a little pet along with their morning grain, and they’re happy. With their ruminant diet, their feces are well-digested and excellent compost. It’s an accessible manure, you don’t break your back shovelling it and it’s soon in the wheel barrow. It’s the lager of the barn, with that unique cold-ferment, long-aging sharpness, it’s the bench at a bus stop, the seat on the subway you’ll slide off of if you don’t hang onto the poll when the thing comes to a stop. But the goat won’t even notice if you go for a spill, she’ll cheerfully stick her head in your scarf to find that whisp of hay you picked up as you were walking to her pen.
Our barn has pigs. Theirs is the manure that makes itself noticed. Heaped in the corridor outside the pen, it seems to create a geographical land form all by itself. The smell is like the animal, talkative, gregarious, curious; finding its way into every part of your sinuses. Sweet, like Cumberland sausage or maple-smoked bacon; and like pork meat, you have to compost it for a long time at high temperatures before it will make a good garden additive. But what earth it makes! The pig is one of the most thoroughly useful farm animals, from nose to tail, and its manure can nourish acres of vegetables. It’s probably the Pilsner of manures, you like pilsner or you don’t, just as some homesteaders categorically refuse to own pigs while others love them. It’s a surprisingly light manure, perhaps because the mash they eat is a powder. They will eat just about anything though and their favourite project is an earth floor with gravel that they can remodel for you.
No farm would be complete without chickens. And their manure does somehow make you think of KFC, with that lingering greasy smell, heavy in the air when you step into the chicken coop. It’s the smell of summer picnics, car trips, a suburban street at 5 o’clock when something else really ought to be open, the parking lot is empty but the fast-food smell still hangs over the road like a mirage. It’s the smell of industry, of little feathered birds who work tirelessly to give either meat or eggs, or both. It’s amazingly tough to clean, it packs a lot of nitrogen and can’t be put on the garden directly or it will burn new plants. It’s the work horse, the honey brown ale of the barn, hoppy and intense, batting way above its weight in compostability just as ale does in alcohol content. It’s the kitchen chair that doubles as a step stool, that doubles as a low work table when you need somewhere to rest a too-heavy canner; the chair bac that doubles as a bobbin when you have to roll a skein of wool into a ball or dry a newly-washed blanket. We all have a kitchen chair like that, and most farms I know have a few hens or meat birds. They’ll peck through a bundle of garden weeds for you, eating the seeds and leaving the rest for your compost pile, they’ll produce an egg every day for two years; their meat is among the most versatile and nourishing in all the world, they’re cheerful, industrious, inquisitive, friendly, trusting and silly. They provide hours of entertainment. And I never get tired of walking back from the chicken coop with warm eggs in my coat pockets. It always feels like a victory, a blessing, magic.
The crown of our farm is our cow. She carries the entire operation on her trusty shoulders. Her head weighs as much as a small person. You know it when she places her placid, friendly head in your arms, her warmth and good nature radiate welcome and hospitality. Her pen is like that, too. The manure is an expansive old leather sofa. If you’re not careful you will sink into it and have a hard time getting out. It envelopes you in its large brown scent, like a blazing fire on the hearth in the kitchen. It contains within it the scent of the earth, the very marrow of the farm. Fields under a summer sun, wild flowers, crisp hay, tangy autumn apples. She is the matriarch of the barn, the flanks under which you shelter on winter mornings when the rest of the barn is icy shards and the wind needles its way through every gap. She is steady slow chewing, the patient flow of milk and of course, the one who, more than any other faithful creature in the barn, will provide the nutrients for next year’s harvest. She without question is the Guinness, the stalwart tankard of a winter evening. Stout is a meal all by itself and the cow is the bearing wall of the farm. She feeds the baby animal whose mother doesn’t have enough milk. She gives butter, cheese, cream, milk and everything you can make from those. There’s probably a good reason why a cow made such an excellent dowry. With a cow in your barn, you’ll never go hungry.
We have completed our flight, our olfactory tour of the barn. But like a good degustation, you need to cleanse your palate before re-entering the smorgasbord of scents and fragrances the world has to offer. So, let’s step back through the little swinging door into the crystalline air of mid-morning, the brilliance of a clear December day. Breathe in! Fill your lungs with that bracing glittering absence of scent. It’s like Vienna crystal brimming with good cold well water on a white tablecloth under the chandelier in a dining-room. Sip that wintry air as we wander back toward the drive where the cars are parked, up the hill toward the road. Admire the view, the quiet, the wonder of it. Come back in the summer when the scents and sounds will be completely different. The farm is variety and movement, stillness and constancy. It Is a place of contradiction, of fullness, of synergy. It is a place where decay and decomposition aid in birth, where compost and harvest are sometimes indistinguishable. This is our daily flight, our banquet, our celebration. Thank you for sharing it with us.
—About the Author—
Rebecca Blaevoet and her husband live on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, not far from the border with Maine, where they grow and raise 75% of the food they eat. They also run a company specializing in print-to-braille publishing. Her short story “Touched by an Angel” appeared in Artificial Divide, a first-of-its-kind own-voices anthology featuring blind and visually-impaired authors.